The European Union's Development of Waste Policy and Resource Efficiency Initiatives

European policy and legislation provides the overarching framework for the development of circular economy thinking in Europe and the UK. Without the development of legislation to limit landfill, reduce carbon emissions, improve recycling of key materials, introduce producer responsibility for end of life products, restrict toxic substances in the environment, influence the design of products, develop 'integrated product policy' and, crucially, sign up leading businesses to the ambition of greater resource efficiency, circular economy thinking would have far less traction. These actions have themselves been influenced by the more environmentally progressive European nations, in particular the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. The EU-promulgated notion of the 'waste hierarchy' is an important precursor to the ideas set out by many of those espousing the circular economy. The waste hierarchy has legal force through the Waste Framework Directive (EC 2008) and indicates the order of preference for waste options: prevention before reuse, reuse before recycling, recycling before energy recovery and lastly disposal. The circular economy approach can be seen as a more systematic (rather than incremental and material-based) application of this thinking.

The requirement of the 2008 Waste Framework Directive, for all member states to produce Waste Prevention Programmes by the end of 2013 (EC 2008), forced the issue further and gave policy makers an opportunity to set out circular economy ambitions. Much of the thinking behind this requirement had been done through the Commission's development of 'Integrated Product Policy (IPP)' – a series of initiatives starting in 2003 to understand which products accounted for the greatest environmental impact. Work under the IPP banner promoted 'life-cycle thinking' and advanced policy instruments, including the Ecodesign of Energy Using Products Directive, which aims to reduce the impact of products (EC 2014b).

Integrated Product Policy also underlies another relevant development – the process begun by the publication of the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe championed by Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik, and adopted by the full Commission in September 2011 (EC 2011b). The Resource Efficiency Roadmap is part of the Resource Efficiency Flagship of the Europe 2020 Strategy, which the European Commission describes as 'the European Union's growth strategy for the next decade and aimed at establishing a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy with high levels of employment, productivity and social cohesion' (EC 2011a).

The roadmap can be seen as a move to advance from the position reached by virtue of decades of waste legislation, and guide member states and businesses towards a consolidated and comprehensive vision of a resource efficient, circular economy. The roadmap does not place any legal obligations on member states, but it does set a number of benchmarks and milestones (notional targets), and has an ambition (vigorously debated) to agree indicators to measure resource efficiency. It has also given rise to the European Resource Efficiency Platform (EREP), a multistakeholder group of influential politicians, business people, NGOs and academics (EREP 2013). In addition, Horizon 2020, which is the EU's framework programme for research and innovation, is beginning to feature 'Circular Economy' and 'Industrial Symbiosis' as recognized terms, while OECD has started to refer to 'Industrial Ecology'.

A parallel initiative has been the development of the EU Raw Materials Initiative (EC 2014a), which has examined the future prospects for the availability of raw materials crucial to the economies of the EU. Fourteen materials, mainly metals, have been identified as critical and recommendations have been developed to secure future supplies. These recommendations fall into three categories, or 'pillars': (1) ensuring a 'level playing field' for access to resources in third countries (often referred to as 'resource diplomacy'); (2) securing supplies within Europe, such as reopening historic mines; and (3) improving resource efficiency and recycling, not least by highlighting how poor our current recovery of key metals is at present. It is the third 'pillar' that has contributed to the growing circular economy debate.

In 2014, in an attempt to consolidate and extend the progress made to date, Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik proposed a Circular Economy package of new policy initiatives. This appeared at the very end of the 2010–2014 Commission in July 2014 (EC 2014c). Its principle measures were:

• A target of 70 % recycling for municipal waste by 2030

• A target of 80 % recycling of packaging waste by 2030

• Landfill bans from 2025 for plastics, metals, glass, paper, card and biodegradable waste.

The policy package also included two non-binding targets: the Commission wanted member states to adopt national strategies to reduce food waste by 30 % by 2025 and proposed a target of a 30 % increase in EU resource productivity by 2030.

The package was greeted with disappointment from environmental groups who wanted more measures to stimulate activities such as re-use and remanufacturing (the 'inner' or 'tighter' loops, as described by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation) (EMF 2013). However, it was not welcomed by some key member states and leading business groups who felt that the 70 % target was unachievable, and that the resource productivity target was not implementable, given the absence of good baseline data on which to assess progress against the target. The package did not survive the formation of the new Commission and was formally withdrawn in February 2015, as part of a drive to cut 'red tape' (Euroactive 2015). At the same time, the EU Commission pledged to propose a 'new and more ambitious' package by the end of 2015. The uncertainty thus generated has been widely criticized by NGOs and some businesses.

 
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